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Apple Gets Poor Grades From Greenpeace on Its Cloud Cleanliness

April 17, 2012

An Apple store in Beijing. Photograph: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

An Apple store in Beijing. Photograph: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Apple Inc. (AAPL:US) received low marks from Greenpeace International for the energy use of its iCloud online service, which the environmental organization says doesn’t rely enough on clean sources of electricity.

The Cupertino, California-based company earned no better than a D in the four categories analyzed by a Greenpeace report released today called “How Clean is Your Cloud?”

Of the 14 companies investigated, only Inc. (AMZN:US) and Twitter Inc. got a worse overall grade for categories that included companies’ public disclosure of data and willingness to spell out ways to improve their energy plans. Greenpeace also listed a clean energy index that ranks the companies by the amount of renewable energy they use as a percentage of their overall consumption, reported on its Tech Blog. Apple was the sixth lowest on that list.

The main charge is that Apple and many other large information-technology providers aren’t trying hard enough to use clean, renewable sources of energy in their data centers, which deliver software and computer power to users over the so- called cloud.

“Many IT companies are simply choosing to attach their modern information factories to some of the dirtiest sources of electricity, supplied by some of the dirtiest utilities on the planet,” Greenpeace said in the report. “These utilities, unlike the IT companies, are not known for their innovation.”

North Carolina

Apple, for example, put its main data center in Maiden, North Carolina, and gets much of its electricity through coal- fired plants owned by Duke Energy Corp. (DUK:US) A new facility in Oregon also will probably be mostly coal-powered, according to Greenpeace, which estimates that Apple gets about 55 percent of its electricity via coal. That’s a higher percentage than any of the other companies.

Gary Cook, a Greenpeace senior IT policy analyst who served as the lead author of the report, said Apple should use its cash and influence to buy cleaner energy, which would pressure Duke to do so as well.

“To do a clean iCloud, they need to demand better options from Duke,” he said.

In response to the report, Apple issued a strong statement that raises questions about the quality of Greenpeace’s analysis. The company revealed that its North Carolina data center will consume a maximum of 20 megawatts -- far less than the 100 megawatts that Greenpeace estimated.

The company also provided an update on its plans that belie Greenpeace’s characterization of Apple as a laggard on the data center issue.

‘On Track’

Apple said it is “on track to supply more than 60 percent of that power on-site from renewable sources, including a solar farm and fuel cell installation, which will each be the largest of their kind in the country. We believe this industry leading project will make Maiden the greenest data center ever built, and it will be joined next year by our new facility in Oregon running on 100 percent renewable energy.”

In its study, Greenpeace estimated that the solar farm and fuel cell would satisfy only 10 percent of the energy required. Despite Apple’s plans for the future, the group gave the company a D for not using its huge cash reserves to buy cleaner forms of energy.

Thomas Williams, a Duke Energy spokesman, said that 46 percent of the company’s generating capacity in the Carolinas is coal-fired, compared with the U.S. average of 41 percent.

“We take strong exception to Greenpeace’s contention that our Carolina power is ‘dirty,’ since it’s consistent with the nation’s mix of coal,” Williams said in an e-mail. “What coal we do have is getting cleaner, and the majority of our power comes from emissions-free nuclear.”

‘Earned Some Credit’

Apple’s low marks are the latest sign of a re-escalation of criticism from Greenpeace, which had tempered its attacks late last decade after Apple began disclosing its success in eliminating use of harmful chemicals product manufacturing.

In 2009, the late Steve Jobs said he thought the company had made big strides to win over the nonprofit.

“I thought they were being very unfair with us at the beginning, and that they were using us to get visibility,” Jobs had said. “But we never disagreed with them about the fundamental goal. I’d like to think we’ve earned some credit.”

While the latest report showed that Apple still isn’t in Greenpeace’s good graces, other companies received low scores.

Amazon got an F for transparency because it provides little detail about the energy used to dole out its Amazon Web Services cloud-computing offerings. The company doesn’t contribute information to an industry group called the Carbon Disclosure Project. In addition, it got an F for its use of renewable energy sources.

‘Out of Step’

“AWS does not appear to have made any purchases of investments in renewable electricity for its facilities,” Greenpeace’s Cook said in the report. “AWS is currently falling out of step with other major cloud companies who are putting in place a long-term business strategy that accounts for impacts the company will face due to climate change.”

Drew Herdener, a spokesman for Seattle-based Amazon, said the company told Greenpeace weeks ago that the group’s information was inaccurate, though Amazon declined to release any numbers. He said that having “hundreds of thousands of companies” rely on Amazon’s data centers rather than try to run their own is bound to be more energy-efficient.

“The cloud enables a combined smaller carbon footprint that significantly reduces overall consumption,” Herdener said.

While Cook agreed that cloud computing is a good approach, he said some clouds are cleaner than others.

Unlike Apple and Amazon, Twitter didn’t dispute the findings. “The Greenpeace report raises important considerations around energy efficiency,” the company said. “We continue to strive for greater energy efficiency as we build our infrastructure.”

Better Scores

The report gave better grades to Google Inc. (GOOG:US), Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US) and Facebook Inc. (FB:US) Google has set up a quasi-utility called Google Energy that has inked long-term contracts to buy wind energy from NextEra Energy Inc. in Oklahoma and Iowa. Greenpeace said Google’s facilities use half the energy of the typical data center.

The group also credits Google for pledging to get 35 percent of its energy from renewable sources and for “its involvement in the lobbying debate to advance clean energy policies in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Yahoo located a new data center in upstate New York, where it draws heavily on hydro-power from the New York Power Authority.

Facebook’s new data center in Sweden can be run entirely on renewable energy, and the company has promised to do the same for its entire business.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Burrows in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at

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